• This feature first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Sight and Sound.
This feature first appeared in the March 2011 issue of Sight and Sound.

For all sorts of reasons, Nicolas Roeg is the great conundrum of British cinema. Through one long golden period that takes in Performance (1970), Walkabout (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980) and Eureka (1983), he was the one British director whose work could be as haunting, imaginative and visionary as anything produced by the New American Cinema or the world’s most lauded auteurs. His films since then have been, to say the least, patchy. This means that when producer Jeremy Thomas proclaims Roeg to be “Britain’s greatest living filmmaker”, it’s not hyperbole, but an acknowledgement freighted with might-have-beens. For me Roeg’s bumpy later career is a symptom of a wider cultural tendency in British cinema: the gradual disappearance of ideas about culture, the Romantic and the uncanny from British cinema narratives.

That original run of Roeg films is all the more remarkable because it happened during a period of extraordinary creativity in the cinema. Having experienced a drop in popular interest as the 1960s ended, the Hollywood studios were just about to discover a new generation of ‘movie brats’ influenced by New Wave European cinema. The British, for a moment, had no populist commercial Californian lodestone to sail by, and so a unique kind of British cinema came to prominence, as never before or since. This loosely connected wave of filmmaking evolved partly as a response to a well-known collision of contemporary urges: ‘Swinging London’, the Beatles, the sexual revolution, drug culture and the economic empowerment of the teenage westerner. High culture became entangled with pop culture in ways that would come to be described as postmodern.

I have already argued in these pages (S&S, June 2009) that Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey were key progenitors of this new brand of UK of cinema with The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967). But a patchwork of other influences are also relevant, such as Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle, Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Hammer’s horror films and Richard Lester’s Beatles films.

Roeg would become the more whimsical exemplar of this kind of British art cinema, while Ken Russell was its jolly provocateur (the tragic young director of Witchfinder General, Michael Reeves, might have made a third), but Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) also feels part of the moment. The films of these directors at this time were alike only in being unafraid of seeming pretentious or experimental, and in tending to assume an absorption in the arts as necessary to modern life, while sharing a desperate need to be iconoclastic. In other words, they were Romantics.

Performance (1970)

Creative excess

The cinema being released in art and repertory houses at the end of the 1960s was similarly born out of a heady atmosphere of risk-taking and creative excess. In the three years it took to make and release Roeg’s first two features as director, Performance (shared, of course, with Donald Cammell) and Walkabout, the following titles could be seen at UK cinemas: Visconti’s The Damned and Death in Venice; Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs; Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point; Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana; Bertolucci’s The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem; John Boorman’s Leo the Last; Buñuel’s Tristana; Ken Russell’s Women in Love, The Music Lovers and The Devils; Altman’s MASH and McCabe & Mrs Miller; and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Of course there’s a deal of self-indulgence in amongst that international mix, yet those few years still seem a time of astonishing creative fecundity, one that’s to be envied in our present era of self-censorship and anti-intellectualism.

But that’s not to say that Roeg’s films are especially intellectual. He is more an intuitive than an analytic figure, and some would say that a blunting of intuition, allied to an aversion to interference, partly accounts for the lack of great projects in the latter part of his career. As he has said of himself: “I shoot a lot of stuff. I think that’s probably come from not having gone to film school. Things work themselves out. You’ve lost the showmanship thing, the fairground barker, come-see-what’s-inside aspect of filmmaking when you try to plan everything for the audience.”

At the mention of Roeg’s name, a flood of indelible images springs to mind: the half-glimpsed figure in the red coat reflected in the waters of a Venice canal reminding reluctant psychic Donald Sutherland of his drowned daughter in Don’t Look Now; David Bowie removing his contact lenses to reveal alien eyes, thereby scaring his playmate Candy Clark out of her mind in The Man Who Fell to Earth; lost schoolgirl Jenny Agutter’s naked swim in the outback – an abiding memory for an entire generation of then adolescent straight boys – in Walkabout; and in Performance, James Fox’s gangster in a hippie wig under the influence of magic mushrooms being teased and taunted by Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg as they deconstruct his machismo.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Roeg’s place in the pantheon of those years is of special interest to me because it coincided with the high point of my time as an art student. I was then a Roeg fan, not involved in writing about film. So I was surprised to find how severely some critics assessed his work. Three main issues tended to dog his critical reputation: his origins as a cinematographer who’d worked his way up through the industry; his constant use of ‘polar contrasts’ of images; and the dispute about his input into that seminal film Performance – a work that seems crucial to the rest of his filmmaking career, and yet which critics seem determined to credit mostly to the film’s co-director Donald Cammell.

True, Cammell was the screenwriter and prime mover of that film’s Borges-influenced story of gang enforcer Chas (Fox) who, on the run from his own boss, holes up in a labyrinthine house in Powis Square, Notting Hill owned by reclusive former rock star Turner (Jagger). The scion of a well-connected family, Cammell was the one who could unite all the disparate elements required for that peculiarly resonant cultural moment – from rock stars to rich bohemians to gangsters out for a touch of glamour. It also seems that Roeg had little to do with the final stages of cutting the film in the US, since he was already away preparing Walkabout.

But Roeg, who was the older man by six years, had already been working as a cinematographer for the best part of a decade, for directors as varied as Roger Corman, Richard Lester and François Truffaut, so we can be sure that the stunning look of Performance was mostly down to him. Furthermore, the film’s games with narrative structures, fragmented images, weird synchronicities and correspondences would be carried much more successfully into Roeg’s subsequent work than they were into Cammell’s own rather distrait directing career, which resulted in only three further features in as many decades. Whether Roeg was more crucial to Performance than it’s fashionable to acknowledge or just very quick on the uptake hardly matters when you review what he went on to achieve.

Walkabout (1970)

The impact of Performance and Roeg’s first solo film Walkabout – their ability to startle us – may have been slightly blunted by the decades of Brit gangster movies and music videos they influenced, yet they remain impressive, and not merely because they’re so beautifully composed.

Walkabout is partly a powerful Green elegy for an Australian outback seemingly on the brink of ruination, and partly a prelapsarian adolescent vision. A demure 14-year-old schoolgirl (Agutter) and her voluble little brother (played by Roeg’s young son Luc) are abandoned in the desert, where they are rescued by a young Aboriginal boy undergoing his initiation into manhood. Though radical playwright Edward Bond loosely adapted the screenplay from a novel by James Vance Marshall (in the process changing the reason for abandonment from a plane crash to their father’s failed attempt to murder his children before committing suicide), the resulting film uses dialogue sparingly, mixed with banal radio commentary as a burbling connection to a sense of domestic normality in the face of awesome nature.

The Romantic British cinema of that time loved things as corny as the brilliant sunsets one now finds in such television series as Human Planet. There are many shots in Walkabout of then unfamiliar-looking outback fauna – lizards, toads, snakes, spiders – which one can now view either as repetitive or as a powerful attempt to approximate the world-view of the Aboriginal boy, with his respect for what he has to kill. The film’s climax is almost a work of performance art: the Aboriginal boy performs a day-long death dance which seems to pen the girl into the half-ruined house he’s led her to, and then, apparently, dies.

Pure cinema

Roeg’s next film, the high-culture supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now, opens with tragedy in the bosom of an English idyll. Two children, a brother and sister, play in the huge garden of a nicely appointed country house while, inside, their father (Sutherland) and mother (Julie Christie) are absorbed in cultural pursuits. Trying to retrieve her ball from the pond, the little blonde girl in the shiny red mac falls in and drowns, just as a mysterious red figure in a photographic slide her father is looking at suddenly seems to bleed. The father senses the tragedy, but is too late to help her. His mistrust of his ‘sixth sense’ will later lead him again to disaster.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

One of the problems with using the shock value of such intercutting – Roeg’s stock-in-trade – is that the next generation will always push the boundary further. In a notably rigorous 1974 assessment of Roeg’s potential published in Jump Cut, Chuck Kleinhans argues that, “at times Roeg’s fascination with visual antonyms” – with cutting, say, from the Aboriginal boy throwing some slaughtered kangaroo on an open fire to a butcher in England cutting up meat – is “almost bludgeoning”. When it comes to the famous finale of Don’t Look Now, when Sutherland’s character is meeting his grisly end at the hands of the dwarf in the red mac, and all the portents and visions he deliberately ignored come flooding back to him, you can see Kleinhans’s point; but at the same time the sequence stands as one of the most astonishing passages of pure cinema anyone has ever put together. In the face of such kinetic power, Kleinhans’s insistence that such associative techniques be employed to achieve some more cogent level of psychological analysis seems moot.

The obvious parallel to Roeg’s cinema at the time was that of Ken Russell. Without Russell – his reverence for genius, his vision of sex as the principal creative drive, his shouting to the rooftops about the power of great art in such deliriously over-the-top films as The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972) and Mahler (1974) – Roeg’s films would have felt much more isolated from the cultural mainstream. To see those Russell extravaganzas now is to be thrown back on Kazuo Ishiguro’s idea in Never Let Me Go that art as a creative mode of employment could be seen as a distractive dream sold wholesale to the baby-boomer generation.

Yet one thing I still love about the British cinema of that period is its earnest desire to show off erudition. In Bad Timing, Roeg’s semi-Freudian poetic analysis of amour fou between two American expatriates in Vienna, one is encouraged – as in Godard – to catch the titles of books left lying around (that touchstone of the Romantic, William Blake, features, as does Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky) and to reflect on the Klimt and Schiele paintings they admire in galleries as being resonant with their own self-destructive romantic impulses. Is the film all set up so that Roeg can cut between sex scenes and trauma-resuscitation scenes? Possibly. Sex and death, those book-ends of the Gothic, are the constant contrast here.

What’s astonishing about this Romantic vein of British cinema is how quickly it died away. By the time Bad Timing was released in 1980 (the same year as Gregory’s Girl and The Shining), the Thatcher government was in power, the Goldcrest assault on America was under way (Chariots of Fire was released in 1981), the advertising boys (Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and the Scott brothers) were looking to make films in America, and Terry Gilliam and the Pythons were deflating all sorts of pomposity in the field of costume drama – thereby perhaps inadvertently making way for the anodyne Merchant-Ivory/Brideshead school of heritage chic. Roeg had yet to make Eureka (and Russell to confront his Romantic demons head on in 1986’s Gothic), but the game was already up.

Since then the dominant form of homegrown British creative cinema has been a poetic social realism that finds its roots in the work of Ken Loach and the reaction against Thatcherism. It has many flowering offshoots, from Shane Meadows’s This Is England to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank to Paddy Considine’s forthcoming Tyrannosaur – fine films all. That there is a form of Romanticism inherent in these films is unquestionable, but it is one of small gestures, of limited asides.

What I’m lamenting is a more large-scale imaginative kind of cinema in love with the idea of the arts as redemptive in and of themselves, rather than as a means to tell redemptive stories. Watching these 1970s British Romantic films, you see they are connected to the similarly Romantic cinema of Powell and Pressburger, which was such a strong influence on ‘movie brats’ like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Despite the valiant efforts of Derek Jarman to develop art cinema using more modest means, at some point in the 1980s the connection was broken. The brilliant early cinema of Nicolas Roeg, contradictions and all, has yet to find its successor.

Further reading

Peter Wollen on dandyism, decadence and death in Performance

Peter Wollen on dandyism, decadence and death in Performance

Walkabout – Half a century on, Luc Roeg remembers the outback shoot

By Elena Lazic

Walkabout – Half a century on, Luc Roeg remembers the outback shoot

Nicolas Roeg obituary: one of British cinema’s greatest visionaries

Nicolas Roeg obituary: one of British cinema’s greatest visionaries